Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 7 September 2009

Interview with Bridget Fox, Lib Dem candidate in Islington

Last weekend, I took a trip over to Islington to meet Bridget Fox, the Lib Dem candidate for Islington South & Finsbury.

I had got to know Bridget a little bit via Twitter and blogging but I thought it would be interesting to meet her. She seemed like a strong campaigner from what I could tell and with the Labour incumbent Emily Thornberry only having won against Bridget by 484 votes in 2005, the seat is one of the party's main targets at the next general election.

I helped out during the day with some leafletting and canvassing. In between the morning and afternoon sessions I took the opportunity to interview her outside the Market Cafe on Whitecross Street. Below is the transcript of the interview.

Before you read on I should warn you that this is the unedited version of the interview. I have included it here for completeness and for those who want to know more about this very impressive candidate who could well be a Lib Dem MP in less than a years' time so it is pretty much a straight version of the full half-hour discussion we had. For those who don't want to read the full interview there is an edited version which has been posted on Lib Dem Voice here (although the juiciest stuff about her views on the sexiness of libraries is only in the version below!).

My questions are in bold and Bridget's answers are in italics. Interview begins:

What first sparked your interest in politics?

Well, I grew up in a political household. My dad was a local councillor when I was a small girl and a local campaigner in the Labour Party. Both he and my mum were very active in all sorts of community groups and single issue campaigns like anti-apartheid and the world development movement so I grew up kind of thinking it was a normal thing to do.

So was it the Labour Party that you initially got involved with then?

I helped my dad out with his campaigns when I was still too young to vote. Then when I went to university, I always assumed that I would join the Labour Party but I ended up joining the Liberals because I found they were closer to my own views. Still committed to social justice but much more interested also in the individual and in the environment, two things that I was increasingly concerned about.

Was it a wrench for you to join a political party that was not the one that you were brought up with?

I was very worried that I would be hurting my dad’s feelings. It was quite funny because it was just after the formation of the SDP and my parents had discussed that a lot and my dad had decided to stick with the Labour Party although he agreed with a lot of the criticisms of it that were made by the SDP. So then a couple of years later when I went and joined the Liberals I was worried he would be very hurt but he has always respected my decision. Then 50 years after he joined the Labour Party he ended up leaving them over the Iraq war anyway and ended up helping me out in my election campaign. Returning the favours!

Did you consider joining the SDP?

I might have done but I was doing French at university at the time that it was all happening and hence I was abroad at the time of the 1983 general election. So I came back and the first campaigns that I got involved with really were later than that so I kind of missed that moment. But I think because I was in a Labour family that had decided not to join the SDP, it would have been harder for me to join them than the Liberals.

Because of the damage that they were doing to Labour?

Yes, although Shirley Williams always was and remains my political heroine. Also, with hindsight what the SDP founders did was both necessary and very brave.

You’ve been involved with Islington and lived here for a long time, nearly 20 years. What do you like about the area?

I think it’s amazing. It’s virtually in Central London yet it has a really village-y feel. It’s got very rich resources in terms of cultural opportunities and leisure opportunities. It’s also very diverse, both ethnically and socially. So it’s an area where anyone can live. It’s also where my dad’s parents were from originally so I’ve got roots here as well.

I noticed that you are a council leaseholder. Do you think this perhaps gives you an insight into how people in the constituency live that some PPCs and MPs who perhaps do not live in that sort of situation wouldn’t have?

I think it’s important in Islington, the vast majority of people here live in flats and a majority live in council estates even if they are not council tenants. If you roll back a decade, it was two thirds of the constituency were council tenants and “right to buy” has gradually eroded that. I think it is important for people to know that life on estates is like. To know what dealing with the council as a landlord or a freeholder is like and also just to have that day-to-day experience. It’s much easier if you know what it’s like to deal with issues than if you’re just experiencing it as a visitor I think.

And have you had any problems that may have given you further insight?

Yes, I think I have seen the good and bad side of living on an Islington estate. I haven’t always lived there though, I have lived in a variety of different sorts of accommodation in my time in Islington and I think that is good experience. But yes, my estate has had its share of anti-social behaviour. At the moment we are having improvement works done by the council and I have seen the good and bad side of how that is handled from a leaseholder point of view. I think that if you do have people coming to you with casework then it is much easier to handle it if you have been there yourself?

How do you think your background as a librarian might have influenced your politics and helped inform it?

(Laughs) Well, librarian sounds like a very old-fashioned unsexy job title these days but when I trained, we were at the forefront of the freedom of information movement and we were all about giving them the information to empower them in their lives. That’s absolutely central to my philosophy as a liberal and also what I think people in politics should be about. So to me it’s absolutely seamless with my outlook on life and how I try and live it. Public libraries are like street-corner universities and they are still how many people find out about what’s going on in terms of their access to public services and their access to information as well as a nice place to borrow a novel for your holidays. So I think there are very positive links there. Also, starting my life working in public libraries, it does mean that you meet all different kinds of people and trying to meet their needs which does is very good training for being a community politician.

You say libraries are unsexy but if you believe the comedian Rob Newman, they are a hotbed of sexual tension because of the enforced silence and people, you know all sitting there in close proximity...

(Laughs) Well there are interesting people in all walks of life but I wouldn’t say I’d ever found libraries terribly sexy! However I do think freedom of information is a very sexy concept!

I noticed one of the issues that you feel very strongly about is tuition fees for students. What do you think about the latest noises from the Lib Dem party leadership about this?

Well there have been various sets of noises. Firstly I think for me it is an absolutely touchstone issue because it is about whether you think education is something worth society paying for as opposed to the individual paying for and I think it is. It is also about whether you want the life changing experience of higher education to be availble to all on the basis of merit, not ability to to pay and I do. So for me it’s a no-brainer. Having said that, I was alarmed when it looked like the party might be changing its opposition to tuition fees and I am glad it’s been seen off...

But has it been seen off though?

Well, I think it was seen off in the policy thing and we had Stephen Williams came to one of our pizza and politics evenings to debate the issue with us and I was confident it had been seen off at that stage. I think now the position we’re in is that we are looking at a situation where the next parliament which I hope and expect to be a member of is going to have to make tough decisions because there isn’t going to be enough money to go around. In a context where at the moment people do pay tuition fees, I think it is understandable for the party to say of the things we may want to change, spending a lot more money on this now may not be something that we are able to do immediately even if it is something that we want to do. To me, it’s not a cut, it’s can’t spend more money yet which in a time of recession I think is understandable but it is still something I believe is right in principle and I hope we would do when the money is there.

That answer implies that you think there are more important things that money could be spent on.

I don’t know what the state of the books will be and I think maintaining the core public services we’ve already got and tackling climate change and dealing with globalisation are as important for the future of the country as higher education. I wouldn’t want to cut primary schools to pay for higher education for example because clearly more people benefit from primary schools but I hope, well we do have plans to invest in both and that is what I would like to do. Certainly I am going to be an MP on the progressive left of the spectrum, I will always be defending and advocating public services.

My biggest objection to tuition fees is, as you indicated at the start of your answer, is that their existence favours young people from better off backgrounds, it’s bad for social mobility and it means that people for whom £20,000 or £25,000 is a lot of money end up with those sort of debts before they even enter the job market.


Given that, would you be receptive to the idea of something like a graduate tax whereby although they wouldn’t have the debt hanging over their head. There would be maybe a 1% or 2% premium on the tax that graduates pay which would overall have the same effect in terms of pay-back but it would be over a very long period of time and if they never achieved a particularly high income then they wouldn’t pay very much back on that at all.

I think that last bit would be crucial. I wouldn’t want a system that discouraged graduates from going into socially useful work, or discouraged them from writing novels, painting paintings, writing poetry and living in a garret while they did it. I certainly wouldn’t want a system where the social payback effectively from funding people’s higher education is that they went to work in the city. That doesn’t seem to me to be what we are trying to achieve.

But if it was a small-ish percentage premium...

I wouldn’t have a problem with that. The other argument of course is that if you get a better job you pay more income tax anyway but I certainly wouldn’t have a problem with a graduate tax as part of a fairer taxation system.

Do you still work full time?

I do at the moment, I work 4 days a week. I have chosen to and I am lucky that I have an employer who has been supportive of me doing that.

And how long have you been doing that for?

In my current role for about 2 years now.

Is the reason for that so you have more time for your campaigning as the parliamentary candidate?

It is yes. I mean we don’t know when the general election campaign is going to be. I was reselected as the candidate for this highly winnable seat in January 2007 and I said then that I would work in a way that enabled me to support campaigning so I work 4 days per week and I work largely from home which is in the constituency. That means I am available both to experience maximum time in the constituency which I think is important and also to do campaigning. Frankly, sometimes I use that extra day in the week to do things that normal people do at the weekend, I might be just doing my laundry or whatever. I won’t necessarily be campaigning all the time but it gives me that flexibility that I can attend community events and go campaigning which is what I want to do.

Do you think that if you weren’t able to do that and you did have to work a 5 day week or even as quite a lot of people have to do these days work even more than a 5 day week, with some evenings and weekends do you think that would hamper your ability to campaign?

It would certainly hamper the style of campaigning I like to do. I spend a lot of my time door-knocking. Even now in “peace time” I door-knock three nights a week and every weekend, not always all weekend but certainly either Saturday or Sunday and sometimes both and I think that is important. This is a constituency with a high turnover of residents so we can’t rely on the fact that the people we have met before will necessarily be the electorate this time round and even though a lot of people are online we also have quite a digital divide with a lot of older and poorer people who are not online. I think people are cynical about not meeting politicians and them being remote and detached. That’s not me and that’s not how I want to be. I love campaigning and I have chosen to take a back seat in my previous career to enable me to spend more time on the campaign trail.

What’s the hardest thing about being a parliamentary candidate?

There are huge benefits and the more winnable the seat, the harder you work to become the candidate so no-one should ever complain about being one! There are hard things. There are never enough hours in the day. The other thing is that if you are the candidate, it’s different from being a council candidate even when you’re part of a team; it can all feel very personal as if it’s all about you. So if something goes wrong, operationally or there’s a row about something or some negative feedback on something you’ve done it’s very hard not to take it personally and think “Ohhh, we’re all doomed!”. Of course the great thing about Islington is that it’s not two steps forward and one step back it’s like five or six steps forward and one back but even so the one back can feel very personal if you’re the candidate. So managing that and the constant self-motivation is very important. I don’t find it a problem, I love what I do and I feel privileged to do it but it is potentially extremely demanding. And it takes over your life, it’s the first thing you think about in the morning and it’s the last thing you think of when you go to sleep at night. If you can sleep!

Yes, but I suppose that the prize at the end of it is very, very great isn’t it?

And with a 0.8% swing to win, it’s very doable here.

Indeed. All the Lib Dem parliamentary candidates that I have met who are in winnable seats, and I have met a fair few now, seem very, very driven. There’s something that unites them and I guess even if I hadn’t have known that you were a candidate, I think after having spent 5 or 10 minutes with you I would have sussed that you were at least “the type”! Have you noticed that yourself and did you always feel that eventually you would want to stand for parliament?

When I was about 15 or 16, I really wanted to be an MP. Then I thought I would be a Labour MP. Then I kind of went off the idea party because I thought it wasn’t a realistic aspiration possibly for a Lib Dem – anyone in the party at the time of merger would have thought being an MP would be a rather remote career goal!

Yes, what did we have about 12 MPs or something?

Yes, and I had grown up in a part of the world where we were third place politically and then it was about fifteen years ago I suppose I got into the idea. Originally I have to say I was partly spurred on by the fact the party went for mixed gender shortlists. The idea was to encourage more people to stand and it worked because local parties turned around to their best women activists and said “have you thought about going for candidate approval” in a way perhaps they hadn’t done before. So I was given some helpful shoves and they were pushing at an open door in terms of what was happening in the rest of my life it seemed to be a realistic aspiration. I do love it. You have to have a lot of energy to do it but I find it gives me energy. I think if you are doing something you like, you get energy from it and if you are finding an activity is taking energy out of you then it might not be the right thing for you to be doing.

Yes, I understand that. So have you noticed this “common bond” between candidates or aspiring candidates?

Yes. I think you have to be motivated. I think some people come across in their manner as more driven than others and I think we all have times when we’re not. But when I am on the campaign trail yes I am very upbeat and driven. I’m sure there are times when I’m at home with my feet up when I hope I’m hopefully not so driven! I mean I talk to my fellow candidates quite a lot – we have a very strong network of key seat Lib Dem candidates which is an invaluable network...

Does that include incumbent MPs as well?

Yes it does, but there is sort of a cohort that we all hopefully expect to get elected together and we work very closely together even though some of us are quite geographically disparate. My buddy for example is a candidate in Scotland but in this age of the internet and telecoms we talk to each other all the time and compare notes.

Who is that by the way?

Katy Gordon from Glasgow.

Oh yes, she’s just come onto Twitter hasn’t she?

Yes she has. She’s a great girl and we are both fighting urban seats and we compare notes a lot. We often find that we are doing it in the small hours certainly both she and high have a high metabolic rate and don’t need much sleep, or get much sleep! Maybe that is a common factor. Every candidate says they need more hours in the day and maybe we make more of them by not sleeping much!

You do know that Margaret Thatcher got by on only 4 hours sleep a night don’t you?

Yes I know but it doesn’t make her a role model!

OK! Let’s move on from that one! What would you say is your number one political passion?

Oh goodness! It’s very mean to ask somebody for one you know!?

You can say more than one then!

I’ll give you three then. Education, the environment; fighting climate change and civil liberties. I think that’s a pretty good Lib Dem mix!

So, the environment. That’s a subject very close to my own heart as well both politically and also professionally. I run a company and we help design buildings in a more energy efficient way and provide software for the same purpose. So what particularly in that area have you campaigned on and focussed on?

Well it’s a whole range of things. I’m a supporter of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and I’m concerned about climate change. I spent 8 years as a councillor in Islington and for 4 of those years I had the environment brief on the council and 2 of which I had the same brief in opposition. So it’s something where I have been privileged to put into place lots of environmentally friendly measures. For example all the street-lights in Islington are now powered from renewable sources – that was a decision that I took when we changed the contract on those. We’ve also got very strong green planning rules in the borough about requiring people to have green roofs where appropriate and so on. So I feel that this is practical stuff and also campaigning on things like clean air which are very important in an urban borough. Promoting sustainable transport, you name it. I think one of the things is that people can feel that climate change is such a big and scary issue, they either don’t want to think about it or they think there’s nothing that can be done. I believe that we’re the generation that has a chance to do something and because of that we absolutely must. But there are things we can all do.

But how do you deal with people who say that man made climate change doesn’t really exist and that it’s down to sun-spots or it’s cyclic?

Well they can continue to think that but in the meantime the rest of us have got to try and get on and save the planet.

But they would say to you that you’re going to have an impact on the economy that’s unnecessary because it’s unproven and the science isn’t there?

I understand there is a concern out there that with the end of the cold war, the anti-capitalist movement has just moved on and hijacked the green agenda and is using it to attack a consumerist capitalist society.

Do you think there is an element of that going on?

There may be an element of that. However that doesn’t mean that this whole business about climate change is wrong. I believe it to be right and if it is, it would be inexcusable to do nothing about it. I don’t have kids but I have nieces who I love more than life itself and this is the world in which they are going to be living their lives and I want it to be there for them. Also in terms of global social justice. We’re talking about the adverse effects of climate change as something in the future for us but it’s already happening in parts of the world and there are Bangledeshi constituents here whose relatives are already struggling to live because of changes in flood patterns due to climate change. It is happening and if we have a chance to do something about it... and I’m not a hair-shirted environmentalist, I’m a freedom loving person but I think the great thing about the market which is why I favour it above state planned provision, certainly for anything that isn’t a natural monopoly is that the market responds to the demands of the age and that is for green technology and sustainable solutions. There are whole new entrepreneurial opportunities there and creating opportunities for science and design and think that is exciting. It’s not about saying stop doing X, it’s about saying we’ve got a great opportunity to do Y and Z and save the planet so why wouldn’t you want to do that?

How did it feel to win a scholarship to Oxford?

(Laughs) Well it was more honour than money. I mean I think the scholarship was sixty quid a year which didn’t go very far even in those days. But it was a great honour. My parents went to university but neither of them went to Oxbridge and no-one from my school had ever gone to that college before.

It was Balliol college wasn’t it?

Yes, a political college and it was my first choice and I got it so I was very pleased.

But you didn’t do PPE!?

I didn’t do PPE no! Well I loved French, that was my passion at school and I wanted to carry on doing it but you couldn’t do just French at Oxford so I had to combine it with something. So I was very happy to combine it with History which actually now, on a day to day basis is probably more of a passion than the French so it worked out well. No, I didn’t do PPE...

Good! There are too many politicians around who have done PPE!

Although there isn’t much more to my life than politics at the moment, I do believe there is more to life than politics!

Oxbridge is renowned for turning out our future leaders. Do you think it’s helped you, or hindered you or had no effect at all?

I think what was good about Oxford, well first of all it was great academically obviously and it was a fantastic opportunity to get some great teaching. Looking back now, the number of fantastic lectures I missed because they were at 9:00am, you know makes you weep! I came from an all-girl school to a college that was 70% male! I was quite shy but going there was a confidence builder. Also, going there did fuel a very strong sense of obligation in me, I don’t want this to come out wrong but to use my skills for good. I wouldn’t say I am a good “Oxbridge networker” but I have still got friends today who I met there. I suppose that I did meet some of our future leaders as well, for example I was a contemporary of Boris Johnson...

You weren’t a member of the Bullingdon club were you!?

No! I don’t think girls were allowed in! I also got my first experience of practical politics at Balliol with student elections and my first party conference. There was also a great summer in 1985 that I spent driving around and helping out with the Brecon and Radnor by-election, which we won! It taught me that politics could be fun!

What is it that makes you a Liberal Democrat?

Well I joined the party because Labour’s method of social justice was not acceptable to me. I do not want to trade freedom for equality. Also, I could see the havoc that the Tories were wreaking. I have never doubted that it was the right choice. I think we have the right balance and I have seen how good we are at a local level, especially where poorer people have lost out because of Labour’s approach. The rich can buy themselves out of these problems but the poor can’t.

During the course of this interview, you have said more than once that you expect to be the next MP for Islington. How does it feel to be that close to achieving your goal and what would you want to achieve in your first twelve months?

Well I certainly would not to be so arrogant as to say I definitely will win. It’s of course up to the voters but there is only a margin of 484 votes and we need a 0.8% swing to get there. I would spend my first year being a good constituency MP – Islington deserves this.

Some question whether we have the balance right at the moment of the work that MPs do in their constituencies versus spending time at Westminster holding the government to account. Do you think the balance is right on this at the moment?

Well the job is both. Having spent time as a councillor I feel that is a good grounding to be able to represent the people here in parliament. I think it is easier for London MPs as they are closer and there is not as much time spent travelling back and forth. MPs are servants of their constituents though and the two jobs feed each other. Parliament should not be about abstract “what ifs” it should be about “what is”.

You are very active on Twitter and you also maintain a blog. How do you find using these sort of technology helps with your campaigning?

They are really useful but it would be lazy to just rely on the technology. There are still a significant minority of people who are not online but I think that as a politician to not use it would be wrong. It is a way of communicating that I do like, I really like the genuine interactivity but it is part of the mix.

What kind of support do you get from the party centrally?

We do get some funding from them but we also get funding locally. The best thing we get from the centre is the training and expertise as well as visits from MPs. For example Nick Clegg was here yesterday and soon the number of times he has visited us here since he became leader will be in double figures. That’s a huge vote of confidence for me and the team here.

My final question. Can you say something nice about your Labour opponent, Emily Thornberry?

I would say that she is a good mother.

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